The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Lim Chan-sang, 2004)

president's barber posterWe each of us live in the midst of history being made, some of us closer to the action than others. Most of us don’t quite realise how close we are or fully understand our role in events until it’s too late, but in any case we’re all just too busy getting on with the business of living to give much thought such grand concepts as history or legacy. Song Kang-ho has made a name for himself playing genial everymen forever at the mercy of historical machinations, but before he was an apathetic Taxi Driver, he was an apathetic barber giving haircuts to a dictator he half imagined was a friend. The President’s Barber (효자동 이발사, Hyojadong Ibalsa) is part journey into the intersection between rosy childhood nostalgia and national trauma, and part subtle political satire on the moral corruptions of authoritarianism but its own soft heartedness is often at odds with the grimness of its purpose.

Sung Han-mo (like the counter for tofu) is a nice but dim sort who has his own barber’s studio right across from the Blue House. As his son (Lee Jae-eung) tells us in his cutsey voice over, Han-mo (Song Kang-ho) is easily led and content to do whatever the village leader tells him to do, including participating in the ongoing corruption surrounding the re-election of despotic president Rhee Syngman. Our narrator, the oddly named Nak-an, was born as a result of a brief indiscretion between his father and an assistant (Moon So-ri) who had, apparently, hoped to marry someone else from her home village if Han-mo hadn’t trapped her with maternity. She wanted wanted an abortion but didn’t find out until after the much publicised five month cut off, meaning Han-mo talked her into staying and little Nak-an acquired the unfortunate nickname of “five months Na-kan”.

The family live happily enough until the mid-1960s when Park Chung-hee stages a coup and declares himself “President for Life”. When Han-mo somehow manages to catch a “North Korean Spy”, he gets himself a commendation and the attention of the authorities (for good or ill). A KCIA agent dutifully turns up and hauls Han-mo off to the Blue House because the president needs a trim…

Park’s reputation underwent something of a rehabilitation for a time. He did, in the minds of those seeking to justify his tyrannical reign, preside over Korea’s economic recovery. Han-mo is one of many to prosper, in his case directly in working indirectly for the regime. Han-mo is a simple man, he doesn’t think about politics but often feels belittled and downtrodden, made a figure of fun by those close to him even whilst remaining a cheerful optimist. He doesn’t take much convincing to hitch his mule to Park’s waggon, enjoying the personal boost in his social standing and finally feeling like a someone in being introduced to the world of the elites even when he is forced to accept that he does not and cannot exist fully within it.

Han-mo cuts hair, chatting away the way a barber does without really realising either that he is a vox pop spy or that he might, at any time, say the wrong thing and land himself in serious trouble. Serious trouble arrives during a heated and extremely bizarre period of political hysteria surrounding the “Marxus” virus – a lamentable episode in which an epidemic of dysentery was blamed on North Korean spies and all those who suffered from the condition taken in for “questioning”. Only when his own family is threatened does Han-mo start to reconsider his role in the affair – his status as a peripheral member of the Blue House team is no help in protecting those close to him and he can no longer pretend he does not know what happens in those basements, and that it happens to ordinary people not just “suspicious” ones.

The low level satire derives from Han-mo’s background presence becoming foreground as a very personal spat between a couple of high ranking Blue House staffers gathers in intensity before exploding into events which will have profound, though short-lived, consequences for Korean political history. Han-mo sadly takes down his portrait of Park hanging in pride of place in his shop and replaces it with one of Chun Doo-hwan (who was bald). Still a simple man he has, at least, learned his lesson and prepares to turn down the “honour” of shaving a dictator’s chin. Korea, the film seems to unsubtly hint, is finding its feet again though there will be another long reckoning before it, like Han-mo and his family, is finally able to free itself of the militarist yoke.


The Himalayas (히말라야, Lee Suk-hoon, 2015)

HimalayasBecause it’s there. As good a reason as any for doing anything but these were the only three words of explanation offered by George Mallory in answer to the question “Why climb Everest?”. In Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the heroine reacts in a similarly philosophical fashion when asked “Why do you want to dance?” replying with the question “Why do you want to live?”. What makes some people prepared to dance until their feet bleed and their toes break, and sends others to the peaks of snowcapped mountains staring death in the face as they go, is something which cannot be fully explained in words but cannot be denied by those who hear its calling.

Korea’s most well known mountain climber, Um Hong-gil (Hwang Jung-min), was undoubtedly one who heard the call and The Himalayas (히말라야) is his story (more or less). Based on his real life exploits, the film charts his continuing successes as an international climber until a foot injury forces him to remain on a more usual altitude, but the real heart of the story is in his growing relationship with rookie Moo-taek (Jung Woo) who’s every bit as fearless as he is. Together the pair scale the peaks of the world’s highest mountain ranges until it’s finally time for Hong-gil to hang up his pick and keep his feet on the ground for good.

However, tragedy strikes as one of Hong-gil’s closest friends is suddenly killed after getting caught in an unexpected storm. The mountain ranges of the world are littered with the corpses of unfortunate climbers who got into difficulty and couldn’t be rescued. The bodies remain where they fell, becoming one with mountain itself in a lonely climbers graveyard, frozen and perfect for eternity. Risking your own life to retrieve the lifeless body of a friend may seem like a perverse, irrational thing to do, yet understandable. Wracked with guilt and grief, Hong-gil assembles a team and embarks on a sentimental journey to bring his friend home, and, ironically, learn to let him go.

What starts off as a sports movie with its training sequences and tough coach inspires maverick rookie routine branches off into the classic expeditionary adventure format before falling into its unexpected home genre – the melodrama. Though in one sense a kind of biopic, the realm aim is to get those tears rolling as these brave men and women risk all for glory and comradeship in pushing the limits of the human condition far past their breaking points.

Hong-gil himself is, despite his gruff exterior, a dreamer and idealist in love with the soulful purity of the mountains. His is a journey of self discovery as he tells us that there is no pretence when it comes to mountain climbing. When you’re up there alone, just you and the vast snow covered emptiness, all of your masks and defences fall away. Hong-gil climbs the mountain to explore landscape of his own mind. He also objects to the often uttered phrase “conquer” a mountain as he believes the mountain gives you permission to ascend making this way of thinking disrespectful and even likens the mountain itself to woman when bemoaning Moo-taek’s pointlessly noble romantic gesture by stating that you don’t conquer the “mountain” you console it.

For all that, the real world is ever present as we see in one particularly awkward marketing pitch in which Hong-gil is trotted out as a model to have the prospective sponsor’s logo plastered all over him in the hopes that they will fund an expedition. When someone raises the very sensible point that this could look very bad for them should one of the climbers die with their logo on their chest, the marketing guys slowly start peeling them all off – velcro solves everything, it seems.

The team also becomes a marketing tool for their nation, carrying the Korean flag around with them for any photo opportunities which might present themselves. When tragedy strikes and the remainder of the Korean expeditionary group refuse to go after their fallen friend (the right and practical decision given the weather conditions and the low probability of success), base camp puts out a message over the radio in English pleading for help. The British contingent continue with their crosswords and cups of tea, steadfastly ignoring the emotional mayday call. The Chinese at least begin reassuring each other that it’s far too dangerous to contemplate.

The Himalayas begins as a comedy but the laughs fall away once the tears start rolling. Though it may affect a poetic tone the philosophical meandering is generally at the service of the melodrama which is very much underpinned by male bonding, pride, honour, debt and responsibility. Hong-gil’s “Human Expedition” is one of grief stricken madness but a perfectly understandable one in which he both needs to atone for “abandoning” his mountaineering brother and come to terms with the fact that the death zone has claimed another sacrifice. Often impressively filmed, The Himalayas suffers from its extremely melodramatic, sentimental tone which is only exacerbated by the intrusion of its loud and syrupy score. Anchored by strong performances from its leading players including Hwang Jung-min as the tough yet sensitive Hong-gil and Jung Woo as the young firebrand Moo-taek, The Himalayas spends too long at the destination rather than on the journey and ultimately fails to make either its character drama or expeditionary environment sufficiently engaging.


Seen as part of a teaser programme for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival 2016.

US release trailer: